How did you first become involved with music, and what drew you to composition?
I was fascinated by music from an early age, starting piano lessons at age seven and then organ at eleven. As a teenager, I discovered that full-time church music was a career option, and from that moment there was no turning back! As an organ student at Northwestern University, I was almost entirely focused on performance. It was only later after I started work as a church musician that I began to write music of my own. It was a way to come up with music that was needed for particular occasions. Those first pieces were mostly shorter choral pieces. The organ music came later.
What is your compositional process like? Do you wait until everything is clear in your head, then write it down, or do you start writing and see where it takes you?
The processes for choral/vocal music and instrumental music are different. For music that will be sung, it starts with the text. I can think of one instance when I wrote a tune first, and then asked my wife Marilyn for a text for it, but almost always it’s a situation where the words come first, and the music is written to accommodate the accents of the words and to illustrate the meaning. For
instrumental pieces that are based on existing tunes, I like to find a germ of a motive within the tune that can be expanded or shaped into something new to work with.
Often I will take off in two different directions and then see which one works better. So a lot of music is tossed aside.
Commissions are great, too, because they encourage composers to set texts or tunes that they might not have chosen otherwise. I will always be grateful to Dusty Johnson and Pamela Decker in Tucson for commissioning my Elegy for organ, which is one of my most successful organ pieces.
What is your favorite medium to write for? What draws you to that?
I’m not sure I have a favorite medium. What I most enjoy is whatever I am currently working on! Choral music offers the satisfaction of bringing words to life—the power of musical settings is the ability to explore the emotional impact of a text. “Love Never Ends” is a great example of a piece that brings deeper meaning and emotional impact to a familiar scripture text. And “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say” provided an opportunity to add some dramatic feeling to a familiar hymn-text by highlighting the words of Jesus.
But keyboard music has the advantage of greater freedom of melodic range. Melodies can skip about and go beyond the limitations of a singer’s range. Music for instrumental ensembles is very rewarding, too. The notation software programs that composers have at their disposal are quite remarkable in their ability to play back instrumental sounds with a fair amount of realism. But the music always sounds so much better when you have good musicians playing the music live!
What sorts of new projects do you have in the works?
Currently I am reworking the Maundy Thursday chancel opera that I wrote for Holy Week of 2017. We are presenting the work at my church again this year, and it’s an opportunity to clean up some details of instrumentation. The piece is called “Journey to Jerusalem,” and it is a 60 minute piece for a small ensemble of actor/singers, chorus, instrumental ensemble, and clergy. There are three sections, each separated by a spoken prayer and time of silence. The first part portrays the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover festival, and then the gathering around the table in the upper room with Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. The second part begins with an anguished aria that Judas sings, followed by a reenactment of the Last Supper. This part concludes with the congregation receiving communion. The final portion of the work is set in the Garden of Gethsemane.
What are you up to when you’re not composing or performing?
I’m currently very excited about piano playing. I had continued my piano study through high school, but largely dropped the instrument after I went to college. Last year, we were fortunate enough to acquire a newly-rebuilt 1930 Steinway model A, and the beauty and responsiveness of this instrument has been a revelation. I also very much enjoy doing various projects around the house.
James Biery (born 1956) is an American organist who is Minister of Music at Grosse Pointe Memorial Church in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan. He was Director of Music at the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, Minnesota from 1996-2010. Biery was featured regularly as a performer on the Cathedral’s monthly concerts. He and his wife, Marilyn, shared the organ and conducting duties at the Cathedral. Before moving to Minnesota, James Biery was Director of Music at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Hartford, Connecticut, where he performed often on the 140 rank Austin organ.
Biery was educated at Northwestern University, where he earned Bachelor and Master of Music degrees in Organ Performance. Mr. Biery also holds the Choirmaster and Fellowship Certificates of the AGO. In 2006, 2007, 2008 James Biery was awarded the ASCAP Plus award for his compositions. In 1986, he was the prize-winner for the highest score on the FAGO exam administered by the American Guild of Organists. The winner of several organ competitions, he was named Second Prize Winner in the 1980 AGO National Open Competition in Organ Playing.
Biery developed his compositional skills from two disciplines: years of study of the organ and its literature and intense scrutiny of the orchestral scores of numerous composers whose music he transcribed for organ duet and organ solo. As an organist, Biery has distinguished himself by performing much of the repertoire of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His facility at the organ combined with his demonstrated ability to perform and study a vast amount of literature has given Biery a firm basis upon which to compose for the instrument. His organ and choral compositions are published by MorningStar Music Publishers, Concordia, Augsburg-Fortress, GIA, and Oregon Catholic Press. He has recorded for AFKA and Naxos.